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The Struggle for Justice

March 28, 2006

Bruce Van Voorhis - Hong Kong

By the time you receive this letter, we will be observing Lent, a time on the church calendar to pause and reflect on our faith and its meaning for our lives. This year my focus has been on the life and ministry of Christ and our work at the Asian Human Rights Commission, or AHRC, in Hong Kong.

From the humblest of births to the tortured end of his life in this world, Jesus was an unordinary man who lived among the ordinary people of his time. He was not a political, military or economic leader, but a man who spent most of his life and ministry with his era’s common folk as an advocate for tolerance, peace, justice, compassion and love. Largely for this message, he was nailed on the cross.

Today little has sadly changed; for when I look at most of the human rights victims in Asia on whose behalf our office sends urgent appeals and takes other actions, they share many of the qualities of Christ or the people with whom he frequently associated. First of all, most of the human rights victims that we encounter are ordinary people in their societies, and, like the people with whom Jesus walked, they are poor and from marginalized sectors of society, like the Dalits, or Untouchables, in India. Other victims are human rights defenders. They too may be poor, or they may be lawyers, journalists, academics, students, church workers and others who are motivated by love and compassion to advocate for people’s rights. Similar to the fate of Jesus, they too are detained, tortured and sometimes killed.

Our work at AHRC also shares another quality with the ministry of Jesus—its emphasis on justice—for underlying all of our work, either directly or indirectly, is a call to reform Asia’s legal systems—its police forces, prosecution departments and judiciaries. In examining countries in the region where there are widespread human rights abuses, such as Burma, Cambodia and Nepal as well as other countries, especially in Southeast and South Asia, it is easy to detect an absence of respect for the law and its enforcement. Indeed, it is often the police who are the prime violators of human rights. How can a person complain to the police when they have been tortured, for instance, when the police are responsible for torturing them? Thus, we believe that without reform of most of Asia’s legal systems there can be no justice; without justice, there can be no human rights.

It is for these reasons that we have consistently preached over the years for observance of Article 2 of the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which, in essence, states that if any one of a person’s human rights are violated they have the right to redress, i.e., the right for their legal system to uphold their rights, protect them and render justice.

In October, our emphasis on legal reform and justice continued with the launch of a process to draft the Asian Charter on the Rule of Law. Like our work in the 1990s to produce the Asian Human Rights Charter: A People’s Charter, this process will last several years and will involve as many human rights defenders, lawyers and academics as well as ordinary people as possible. It is hoped that through a series of discussions common problems with Asia’s legal systems will emerge and that remedies to resolve them will be formulated, all of which will be articulated in the Asian Charter on the Rule of Law.

Not all human rights violations, however, can be traced to dysfunctional and corrupt legal systems. Another facet of life that denies people’s rights and their dignity are discriminatory attitudes and behaviors embedded in society and greed.

I heard and saw the hardships of these realities during a two-week trip to the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra in western India in November to interview and photograph adivasis, or indigenous people, for the magazine Human Rights SOLIDARITY that I edit. The adivasis in Gujarat explained to me how the construction of the Ukai Dam—a “development” project—about 40 years ago still contributes to the discrimination, exploitation and poverty that they face today. They described their lives before the dam’s construction when some of them had as much as 120 acres of land that permitted them to be self-sufficient. With the coming of the dam though, each family received only four acres of land that was as much as 35 miles away from where they were resettled. In effect, they had no land that they could regularly till, and thus, some of them began encroaching on land in the forests that has brought them into conflict with the Forest Service Dept., leading to fatal shootings or beatings by government officials. Others have sought to survive by working for sugarcane factories, a job where families receive US$66 or less for six month’s of work after cutting sugarcane for more than 12 hours a day. The other six months of the year they earn US$.50 per day as daily laborers.

Their lives could be so much different if one of the proposed canals of the Ukai Dam had been constructed as planned about four decades ago as they could then irrigate their land and at least be more self-sufficient. When I raised questions about why the canal has never been built or why the adivasis do not benefit from the 550 government welfare programs created just for them, the reply was almost universally the same: “Who will cut their sugarcane? Who will be their large pool of cheap labor?” Their in these sentences refers to upper-caste people whose lifestyles would not be confused with those of the poor who work for them.

Why this is so is a topic for more Lenten reflections.

With Peace,
Bruce Van Voorhis
Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asian Human Rights Commission located in Hong Kong. He serves as a writer and editor with the Commission.

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